Not All Flip-Flops Are Created Equal

Mitt Romney isn’t the first candidate to flip his positions in the service of national ambitions, but there’s something dramatic about the speed and velocity of his transformation. As The Wall Street Journal details in this excellent piece, Romney ran for governor as a liberal –- he promised to defend the state’s abortion laws and provide domestic partnership benefits and then offered himself as a voice for moderation within the Republican Party. Once elected, he continued on that path, signing a state ban on assault weapons and closing a coal power plant under the rationale that private industry shouldn’t have carte blanche to release dangerous fumes into the air.

This all changed in 2005, when Romney began to position himself for a run in the 2008 Republican presidential primary. By the end of the year, he had reversed himself on everything from abortion to climate change, even going as far as to demonize same-sex residents of Massachusetts to out-of-state audiences, in order to build his credibility with social conservatives. “Today, same-sex couples are marrying under the law in Massachusetts,” Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans. “Some are actually having children born to them.”

On Twitter, Politico’s Ben Smith compared this to Barack Obama’s political change in the early part of the 2000s, as he prepared his run for national office. The Obama of the 1990s was considerably more left-wing than the Obama of 2008, or even 2004: He supported public financing of campaigns, domestic partnership legislation, a living wage, single-payer health care, and Medicaid funding for abortion. Likewise, he opposed capital punishment, mandatory sentencing, and restrictions on welfare benefits.

Of course, not all ideological repositioning is the same. Even with his more liberal views, the younger Obama was already in line with the views of Democratic activists and just a stone's throw away from the Democratic mainstream. The distance between where he was and where he needed to be—the center-left of American politics—was pretty short. By contrast, Mitt Romney was leagues away from the mainstream of Republican politics –- his move to the right was of a far greater magnitude than Obama’s move to the center.

The problem for Romney is that having made a huge flip to the right wing, he has to make a comparable flop back to the center. Will voters care that he’s traversed the entire ideological spectrum in less than a decade? If the economy is terrble, probably not. But if the fundamentals look good for Obama—or at least, OK—then the public might be less forgiving of his gross inconsistency.